At the time when European explorers were first setting foot in Africa, the continent seemed to them a vast and enchanting realm with many unique cultures. They also encountered proper kingdoms that thrived with their own monarchs and dynasties. Lucrative trade soon flourished between the two. The Kingdom of Loango was a powerful pre-colonial state, encompassing much of modern-day western Congo. It thrived from roughly 1550 to 1883, and during that time it was a major trading partner for the European merchants and explorers. Alas, that trade had a darker side to it, as the Kingdom of Loango did not shy away from enslaving its neighbors and sending them off across the globe. So what is the full story of this unique African kingdom?
City of Mbanza Loango. ( Public Domain )
The Europeans Encounter the Kingdom of Loango
Throughout its existence, the Kingdom of Loango was very much in the shadow of its southern, more powerful neighbor – the Kingdom of Kongo . Nevertheless, Loango was a power in its own right, possessing many resources that Europeans depended on. However, it most certainly wasn’t as old as Kongo, and its exact origins remain obscure.
The very first travelers’ accounts of this part of Africa do not mention Loango. In 1535, Mvemba a Nzinga, better known as King Alfonso I, the King of Kongo, does not mention Loango in his many kingly titles. Therefore, it is commonly assumed that Loango was not an influential power during this time, or didn’t even exist.
Still, just a few decades later, we see the first mentions of Loango. The Portuguese explorers and missionaries were amongst the first to come into contact with this polity, after they had already established themselves in Kongo nearby. Around 1561, Sebastião de Souto, a priest, tells us that the King of Kongo sent missionaries to Loango, in an attempt to convert them to Christianity. Soon after, we learn from the Portuguese that Loango was on friendly terms with Kongo, and was – in times past – its vassal. How that vassalage was lost, we do not know. Either way, everything pointed to the fact that Loango was an independent kingdom in its own right, but not as powerful as Kongo.
Soon enough, it was not only the Portuguese that arrived here. Other major European powers were also quick to take a peak – Dutch explorers and English travelers soon followed. By the 1660’s the Dutch recorded detailed traditional accounts of Loango’s formation. In 1668, geographer Olfert Dapper tells us that there were several small polities on the territory of Loango, at war with one another. An ambitious leader, hailing from the small nearby kingdom of Kakongo – which was Kongo’s vassal – managed to subdue all these rivaling polities and unite them into a single kingdom, which was likely independent from the start. Soon, that kingdom became known as Loango.
The Kingdom of Kongo depended on the slave trade for its wealth. Representational image of African slave traders traveling to a slave market. (Internet Archive Book Images / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
A Land Rich in Resources
The primary interest of Europeans in Africa was commerce. This new continent was full of resources and potential for slave labor , which the European powers were quick to take advantage of. Loango was a notable example. It was a major trading power in coastal Africa. One of its staples was cloth – Loango was a major regional producer of cloth, and thousands of meters of their trademark cloth was exported in the 17th century. In that same period, the kingdom was amongst the biggest regional exporters of copper, a valuable resource used in Europe. To obtain sufficient copper, Loango merchants often traveled long distances to procure it.
Sadly, another major export of Luango was slaves. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t Europeans who majorly enslaved African peoples. Loango is a good example of this, as it subdued neighboring tribes, taking them prisoner and selling them to the Europeans who used them as slave labor. Their slavers often traveled far inland, attacking small tribes and communities, later to sell them on the slave markets. When the leaders of Loango recognized the need for slaves amongst the Europeans, they quickly became one of the bigger slave trading kingdoms in Africa. And money wasn’t always the payment – Luango chiefs wanted firearms and other goods as well. It was reported in one of the early contacts that the king of Loango possessed a number of early firearms – but that he did not know how to use them.
As far as religion goes, the Kingdom of Loango was a pagan state, worshiping a high creator God named Nzambi a Mpungu. Not much else is known about their religion, which was supposedly based on worship of “house and field spirits”. Either way, Loango had a long history with Christianity. Some of its Kings were successfully baptized, but the pagan faith always returned. The Christian church was never fully established in Loango, despite the attempts of many missionaries.
A Kingdom That Fades into Obscurity
Throughout much of its history, Loango was not a kingdom that could be compared to those in Europe. It was a collective of settlements and tribal leaders, who only nominally recognized the sovereignty of a Loango king. Either way, a long succession of kings has been recorded, of whom only their names are known. But by around 1786, the Kingdom of Loango became fragmented, and the king lost all real authority. This was King Buatu, who died in 1787, and after whom we do not know anything about the leadership of Loango. Of course, with the changes that the world was experiencing in the 1800s, and the major presence of the European powers in Africa, we can safely say that the fragmented Loango state simply faded into obscurity, like countless other African polities, city-states, kingdoms, empires, and cultures.
Top image: Kingdom of Loango, a productive trade center. Source: Public Domain
Brinkman, I. and Bostoen, K. 2018. The Kongo Kingdom: The Origins, Dynamics and Cosmopolitan Culture of an African Polity. Cambridge University Press.
Martin, P. 1972. The External Trade of the Loango Coast, 1576-1870: The Effects of Changing Commercial Relations on the Vili Kingdom of Loango. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Unknown. 2017. Kingdom of Loango. Global Security. Available at: https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/africa/loango.htm